Martin Breheny: 'Changing for the better? It's D-Day for gaelic football's proposed rule changes'
It has been a long time since the GAA's Central Council faced so many important decisions as they do at today's meeting which, in addition to considering whether to trial five significant rules changes, will also discuss whether to introduce a Tier 2 football championship for Division 3 and 4 counties.
The latter, which has come from the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC), can, of course, be accepted in principle, subject to details being worked out later but if Central Council back any - or all - of the rule changes, they will apply in next season's league. Those proposals were drafted by the Playing Rules Standing Committee.
There's some opposition to trialling them in the league on the basis that it's too important to be cast in a guinea-pig role for experiments. The rules committee argue that it's necessary to trial them over as many games as possible.
Only three successive handpasses allowed, after which the ball must be kicked.
AIM: To respond to the big increase - on average 100 per game - in handpassing over the past eight years.
ANALYSIS: This is by far the most significant of the proposed changes as it would have a dramatic impact on many aspects of the game. The purpose is to increase kick-passing and create more contests for possession.
Both are laudable ambitions in a game choked by handpasses (up to 400 per game), many of which go either backwards or sideways. It's also used to close out a game where the leading team resort to keep-ball as they attempt to protect a lead.
It's eyesore football, where stamina, good hands and careful passing are the only real requirements. And since the ball can be passed back to the goalkeeper if required, it's effectively 15 v 14. The key question is whether limiting the handpass will improve the game as a spectacle or merely make it more defensive.
Opponents of the handpass restriction argue that it won't do anything to discourage massed defences and that it will, in fact, have the opposite impact as teams funnel back, knowing that their chances of regaining possession are increased by the requirement on the opposition to kick the ball after three handpasses.
The only way to adjudicate on that is to see the three-handpass rule in operation. Opponents also argue that the game will suffer as a spectacle, frequently leading to the breakdown of a move which was about to release a player into a clear scoring position with a handpass.
The obvious retort to that is: so what? Players would love to be allowed a direct pick-up off the ground, take five or six steps in possession or be in the square ahead of the ball but the rules don't allow it. They would have to adapt to the handpass restriction in the same way. Of course improving their kicking skill would help. Another criticism is that the recipient of the third handpass will opt for safety by kicking the ball backwards to a colleague, who re-starts the handpassing process all over again.
That ignores the reality that the chances of losing possession are greater off a footpass.
YES OR NO? Yes. It may not be the catch-all antidote to the handpass epidemic but it's worth a try. If unintended consequences arise, then move on to the next idea. The negative impact of incessant handpassing has to be addressed, stage by stage if necessary, until a solution is found.
The Advanced 'Mark'. Other than in set play, a player in the attacking half will be awarded a 'mark' for making a clean catch from a kick delivered from outside the 45-metre line, provided it has travelled 20 metres. After catching the ball, he will be allowed 15 seconds to kick it.
AIM: To incentivise kicking and catching and to encourage teams to move the ball into the attacking area more quickly.
ANALYSIS: The sentiment is admirable but this is a really fundamental change to the game, bringing it more in line with Australian and International Rules. Effectively a routine catch by an unmarked player standing inside the attacking '45 would be rewarded with a free shot at goal. There's an obvious risk that it would encourage greater defensive massing as teams worked at limiting the opportunities for opponents to make catches.
YES OR NO? No. It's answering a question that hasn't been asked.
Sideline kicks, except those inside the opposition's 20-metre line, must go forward.
AIM: To generate more contests for possession.
ANALYSIS: Research shows that 44pc of all sideline kicks went backwards (52pc in the defensive half, 36pc in the attacking half) in this year's football championship. Is that sufficient reason to change the rule? If so, why not do the same for frees, which occur far more frequently than sideline kicks?
YES OR NO? No. It's not necessary.
All kick-outs will be taken from the 20-metre line and must pass the 45-metre line before being played.
AIM: To end the short kick-out, which begins the keep-ball process. With all kicks going past the '45, it would encourage more aerial contests for possession. As per current rule, a clean catch would be rewarded with a mark.
ANALYSIS: This one makes sense. Where's the entertainment value in watching a goalkeeper kicking the ball 13 metres to a defender, who then begins the handpassing routine? The argument that if all kick-outs must cross the 45-metre line, it will create bunching to prevent anyone making a clean catch doesn't hold. Even if that happens, there will be a contest for breaking ball, unlike now where short kick-outs dominate.
YES OR NO? Yes.
Replace the current black card with 10 minutes in the 'sin bin'.
AIM: A player sent off under the black card rule can be replaced so there is no numerical disadvantage to the team, whereas they would be a man down for 10 minutes under the sin-bin sanction. Also, there have been examples of harsh black-card decisions, which ended a player's involvement in the game when 10 minutes in the sin bin would be fairer.
ANALYSIS: The sin bin was always a better option than the black card, but having come in for so much criticism from managers, in particular, when trialled some years ago, it didn't feature in the last major round of rule changes. The sin bin would eradicate 'taking one for the team' late on in a game as a cynical foul would result in a numerical disadvantage for the offender's side.
YES OR NO? Yes.
This comes from the CCCC and recommends the introduction of a Tier 2 football championship for Division 3 and 4 counties.
AIM: To give lower-ranked counties a realistic target when/if eliminated from their provincial championships.
ANALYSIS: Proposed by Central Council two years ago for Division 4 counties, it was abandoned after the GPA declared a boycott. It has GPA support, in principle, this time.
The concept of a secondary championship is certainly worth exploring further, although whether it should include 16 teams is open to debate.
For instance, would Armagh, who were in Division 3 last season, or Down, who will be there next year, be interested in a Tier 2 competition? Also, it can only work if it's run, marketed and promoted alongside its Sam Maguire equivalent.
YES OR NO? Yes, subject to further analysis.